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Florida's education chief holds forum in Tampa on FCAT

Published May 23, 2012

Florida's education chief will be in Tampa today to host the first in a series of public forums, part of a blitz to quell frustrations about the state's testing system.

Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson defended the FCAT after the dramatic decline in student writing scores released last week but conceded that the state could have done a better job of explaining changes to parents.

Calling it "Conversations with the Commissioner," the state Department of Education on Tuesday billed the 7:30 p.m. forum at Hillsborough Community College as an opportunity for "parents, teachers and local communities to talk about education in Florida."

He will be joined by Kathleen Shanahan, chairwoman of the State Board of Education, and MaryEllen Elia, superintendent of Hillsborough County Schools.

The DOE also launched a call center, websites and designated email address on Monday, all to answer questions from parents.

According to staff emails, Gov. Rick Scott's office has been intimately involved in efforts to roll out the test scores. Scott's top staff has played a key role in coordinating the state's response after a dramatic drop in test scores prompted a scramble by officials to temporarily lower the passing grade on the writing portion of the assessment from a 4.0 to a 3.0.

At one point, the governor's communications team and Carrie O'Rourke, a deputy chief of staff who handles education issues, made extensive comments and suggestions about a news release announcing reading and math scores.

Reading scores for ninth- and 10th-graders were released Friday along with writing scores for districts and schools.

The state, Robinson said, is likely to release reading scores late this week for third-graders, who typically must pass the test to be promoted to the next grade.

The DOE also sent Scott's office a plan for handling the FCAT results, a three-page document entitled "Higher Standards: The Right Thing to Do."

The purpose of the plan is "(t)o win support and understanding for higher standards in our state as we move through a volatile period of rolling out the results of new, more rigorous assessments (FCAT 2.0) and higher achievement levels (cut scores)," the DOE said in one email.

The department envisioned a "Full-Court Press," including everything from efforts to get letters to the editor written by organizations allied with the governor and the DOE, like the Florida Chamber and the Council of 100, to having Robinson record on-hold phone messages.

Robinson has been criticized for the department's handling of the writing scores and was in the line of fire last week as Florida Democrats lobbed criticism at Republican education policies.

Both Gov. Rick Scott and Shanahan, as head of the seven-member board that appointed Robinson, said the commissioner still has their confidence.

Shanahan said Thursday that she was satisfied with Robinson's handling of the writing scores and has no intention of asking him to step down.

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Immediately after the release of the writing scores, Scott said the significant decline was an "obvious indication" that the department needed to review the issue.

In a statement on Friday, Scott said, "The Florida Board of Education selected Gerard Robinson after conducting a nationwide search for a commissioner who would bring a reform-based agenda, who is committed to raising Florida's education standards and the expectations of our students, and I believe Commissioner Robinson is working to do those things."

Times/Herald Staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this story. The News Service of Florida contributed to this report. Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at,(727)-893-8846 or on Twitter @Fitz_ly.